We landed in Xi’an and transferred to our hostel. Hostels are a delight in China, and seem to get better and better as we go. This one was arranged around three connected courtyards, and featured a colorful travelers’ restaurant, as well as a steep narrow staircase leading down from one of the floors, opening in Alice-in-Wonderland-style into a huge and lively bar, in which every guest in the hostel had a right to one free beer every day. The place was well-staffed, and generally designed to cater to every need of the traveler so that he could not make himself leave.
Xi’an is primarily known for one major tourist attraction: the buried terracotta army that was found here in 1974 and is being unearthed and pieced together ever since. Qin Shi Huang, the emperor who built it 2200 years ago, was a remarkable man: after unifying China for the first time into one empire, he standardized measures, currency and writing, as well as started the Great Wall and built this army — so besides his well-earned place in ancient history, he can now be considered the biggest single contributor to the modern Chinese tourism industry.
We joined a guided tour along with Claire and Heath from New Zealand who live in Japan, Kevin from Canada who lives in Thailand and a couple of Dutch girls who live, strangely enough, in the Netherlands. The first site we visited was Qin Shi Huang’s tomb. It is a mausoleum that required 700,000 people 38 years to build — one can definitely stay that the emperor was a touch megalomanic. Unfortunately all that is on view at this point is a mound: the tomb remains unexcavated, reportedly because of high levels of mercury inside. The emperor believed that consuming mercury would prolong his life — a strategy that didn’t quite pan out, since he went on to occupy his mausoleum at only 49 years of age.
The army itself is indeed mind-blowing. Life-sized units of archers, cavalry and foot soldiers were found standing in battle formation, facing east, the emperor’s tomb behind their back. One of the pits was a command center in which generals and high-ranking officers were stationed. Each soldier is unique; there are no two identical faces. Even details of clothing are different. Out guide, Jaja (or Lady Jaja as she liked to style herself) took us from one pit to the next, starting with the smaller ones, in which we could see pieces of the broken soldiers before the meticulous restoration work they are undergoing, and ending with Pit 1, the most famous one, which houses the thousands of soldiers that have already been pieced together. The site is overflowing with loudly quacking Chinese tour groups, led by guides trying to over-quack them with the help of megaphones, but this is tourism in China, so we had to enjoy it as it is.
The most bizarre exhibit, however, was saved for the end. Jaja took us into the museum’s souvenir shop, where we saw a poster describing Yang Xinman, the farmer who accidentally discovered the terra-cotta army while digging a well in his farm 27 years ago. Beneath the poster was the man himself, a living exhibit, sitting behind a desk with a black marker in his hand, signing books that the visitors were buying in the museum. Jaja stressed that after his village was razed and moved to a different location following the discovery of the army, Yang was given a good house with land and that he now lives very comfortably. He lazily responded to excited “hellos” from members of our group. I frankly felt pity for him and the ridiculous job he had been assigned, which he didn’t seem to enjoy one bit. Something like this, I think, could only have happened in China.
Xi’an had been the terminal point of the Silk Road, and the capital of many major dynasties, so the area is rich with ancient historical sites and emperor tombs. We visited the tomb of another emperor, a much less popular destination, but at least as rewarding. Emperor Jingdi also believed that his rule will continue in the afterlife, and put much effort into preparing his second kingdom, however in contrast to the builder of the Terracotta Army he was a peaceful emperor, and his afterlife empire reflected that: the figurines, small models this time, are of eunuchs, servants and domesticated animals — rows upon rows of pigs and sheep to satisfy his hunger for many years. Glass floors have been built over the excavations, allowing close inspection of the awesome findings. The museum has even produced a holographic film about life in the court of the emperor.
Feeling that two emperor tombs were enough for the time being, we continued in a different vein altogether: we took a bike ride on the Xi’an city walls. The city is hot and smoggy, and the streets radiating from the center disappear into the haze rather quickly. The next day we decided to get out of the city for a couple of days to take in some fresh air.
We took a train out of Xi’an to Hua Shan. Sacred to the Daoist religion, this soaring mountain is dotted with temples perched above vertical cliffs and connected by paths and stairs carved into the stone. It is also a very typical Chinese tourist site: the paths are fenced and signposted, a cable car makes the initial ascent easy and a colossal visitor center / souvenir store / ticket office building greets the visitors at the entrance. Garbage bins are everywhere, disregarded by the Chinese who keep on littering as they are used to, followed by an army of workers armed with brooms sweeping the site continuously all day long. Nature is subdued to the point of almost looking manufactured. This is how the Chinese like their tourist destinations. We made an overnight visit — ascended in the evening, hiked during the night with a flashlight, and met the sunrise at the eastern peak in the morning, together with many sleepy but excited Chinese students.
The arrival of September eased the stress on the Chinese railway system. We were finally able to get our first sleeper tickets: 16 hours in soft sleeper berths to the city of Chengdu in Sichuan province. Since at this point in our trip we resolved not to do more than one thing every day, we didn’t plan anything for the day of our departure, but the hostel had a final farewell gift for us — a dumpling party: a large table at the center of the restaurant was converted into a big dumpling workshop, in which everyone practiced their rolling skills under the guidance of the experienced hotel staff, and then shared in the final product. Dana starred, of course, and right after we finished eating all the dumplings we could stuff into ourselves, we left for the train station to continue our trip.